GOC research highlights innovation in registered businesses

A survey by the regulator found 73% of business respondents had introduced a new or improved clinical service in the past three years

An illustration of a series of cogs in shades of blue each with an icon inside, indicating innovation, technology, targets, ideas, customer service, and shopfronts.

Research by the General Optical Council (GOC) has indicated high levels of innovation across GOC-registered businesses and an expectation of further digital development in the next few years, but workforce pressures and financial challenges remain key issues.

The GOC’s first survey carried out exclusively with business registrants covered questions around innovation and technology adoption, business performance and challenges, and training, regulation and industry standards.

The research revealed high levels of innovation, with 73% of business respondents reporting that they had introduced a new or improved clinical service to patients in the past three years.

Of those, 79% had introduced a service that was new to their business, while 28% had introduced a service that was new to the market.

Most respondents (99%) said improving the customer experience was a reason behind the decision to introduce new services, along with patient demand for new services (92%).

Businesses that have chosen to innovate suggested the greatest benefits seen as a result were attracting new patients (68%) and increasing revenue from existing patients (52%).

Results from the survey indicated primary barriers to innovation in the past three years have mostly been economic and financial, while the lack of NHS connectivity to ophthalmology has also been a constraint.

The research also indicated that the adoption of new technology will continue to increase, with a quarter of respondents suggesting they plan to use artificial intelligence (AI) and live chat or virtual assistants in the next two years.

Reviewing business performance, just over half (51%) of businesses experienced growth last year, and 55% anticipate further growth in the next 12 months.

Workforce pressures were identified as a key challenge facing businesses, with 67% of respondents reporting difficulties recruiting staff. The survey found that 76% of respondents had used locums at least occasionally over the past year.

The survey also found a level of uncertainty around the future, with 40% of respondents agreeing with the statement, ‘I am optimistic about the future of primary eye care,’ while most (72%) agreed with the statement that ‘There are rough times ahead for optical businesses in general’ the GOC shared.

Considering potential challenges facing businesses, the top three ranked by registrants were financial, with the majority rating government funding of sight tests/eye examinations (62%), rising costs due to economic conditions (58%), and increasing wage pressures (57%) as ‘very challenging.’

The survey found some differences in the experiences of independent practices compared with multiples in several areas.

When looking ahead to the next 12 months, half of independent practices expected to grow, in comparison to 61% of multiples.

Independents were less likely to use certain technologies, the GOC found, such as interactive websites, virtual assistants and autorefractors, and were twice as likely as multiples to have had more than 70% of their sight tests funded by the NHS.

Steve Brooker, director of regulatory strategy, explained that the GOC carried out the survey to understand more about the businesses it regulates and the issues they face.

“The results will help us see how regulation may need to adapt to support businesses meet the needs of patients in a changing landscape and contribute towards a review of business regulation we are currently undertaking,” he said.

Brooker described it as “positive” to see businesses introducing new services and planning to use new technologies in the coming years, adding: “We will continue to support them to innovate in a responsible way.”

He continued: “However, we are alert to concerns, with businesses telling us they have problems recruiting staff and many expecting difficult times ahead for the industry.”

The GOC plans to carry out the survey on an annual basis to inform the work of the regulator, and to observe trends over time.

The survey was carried out by research agency, Impact Health, between 7 December 2023 and 31 January 2024, with the findings based on completed surveys from 214 businesses registered with the GOC.

The results of the GOC’s Business Registrant Survey 2024 can be read in full online.